Coach: Mark Stoops (7-17, entering second season; 7-17 overall)
2014 record: 5-7, 2-6 in Southeastern Conference; sixth place in East Division
Look back: The Wildcats rolled to a 5-1 start, their only loss a triple-overtime heartbreaker at Florida. From there, the wheels came off under second-year coach Mark Stoops.
Kentucky allowed more than 40 points five times during a season-ending six-game losing streak. Georgia pummeled the Wildcats 63-31, following a week later by a 50-16 loss to Tennessee.
But Kentucky did take top-ranked Mississippi State to the wire and nearly upset in-state rival Louisville in the season’s final game. Otherwise, the final two months were a reality check for one of the SEC’s perennial bottom-feeders.
Stoops’ defense, his calling card as a coordinator at FSU and previous stops, allowed a league-high 37.5 points during conference games and must replace standout ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith.
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: DE Bud Dupree, DE Za’Darius Smith, LT Darrian Miller, WR Demarco Robinson, WR Javess Blue
Top returnees: RB Stanley Williams, RB JoJo Kemp, QB Patrick Towles, WR Ryan Timmons, DT Marvin Lewis, S A.J. Stamps, DB Blake McClain, C Jon Toth
Strengths: Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles has size (6-5, 241), athletic ability and a big arm. All three were on display during a 369-yard, three-touchdown night against the Gators. Towles also had three interceptions during the 36-30 loss and completed just 52.2 percent of his throws in defeat (57.3 percent in wins). But he continues to grow and threw two touchdowns, no interceptions and completions of 50 and 47 yards in the spring game.
Towles’ supporting cast is led by sophomore tailback Stanley Williams. He had three touchdown runs of longer than 50 yards and a 75-yard kickoff return last season, finishing with a team-high 1,159 all-purpose yards. He ended with 126 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Louisville. Junior Ryan Timmons (45 catches, 536 yards, two touchdowns ‘14) leads a receiving corps with size and potential.
The ‘Cats return four starters on the offensive line, led by center Jon Toth.
The defense is rebuilding up front and has a lot to prove. But linebacker Ryan Flannigan, a junior-college transfer in 2014, had 23 stops during the final two games. Free safety A.J. Stamps had four interceptions last season and possesses tremendous cover skills.
Weaknesses: Dupree, a first-round draft pick, and Smith, a fourth-rounder, will be impossible to replace as pass rushers and leaders. Jason Hatcher, who spurned USC for Kentucky in 2013, will be asked to step in for Dupree. Massive tackle Melvin Lewis (6-4, 342) is the only established player up front.
Stoops, a former defensive back and longtime secondary coach, plans to have an hands-on approach with his secondary, especially at cornerback. Seniors Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller have a lot of experience, but also have been burned quite a bit. Stoops is expected to give at least one first-year player a shot in the fall.
Outlook: Stoops has signed three top-40 recruiting classes to make a significant talent upgrade since he arrived in Lexington. The school has committed resources to the program, including a $120 million stadium upgrade for the fall and $45 million practice facility in the works.
Kentucky’s first bowl game since 2010 finally seems to be within reach.
Sept. 5 UL-Lafayette
Sept. 12 at South Carolina
Sept. 19 Florida
Sept. 26 Missouri
Oct. 3 Eastern Kentucky
Oct. 15 Auburn
Oct. 24 at Mississippi State
Oct. 31 Tennessee
Nov. 7 at Georgia
Nov. 14 at Vanderbilt
Nov. 21 Charlotte
Nov. 28 Louisville
College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com